Vouchers: The Capitalist Fix for Schools


Published: October 30, 2008

I am a homeschooler. My parents educated me at home through high school, sometimes hiring tutors from the local university (which, in New Haven, is Yale) to instruct me in subjects they did not feel equipped to teach. None of the district schools were friendly to homeschooled students—they did not allow us to play on sports teams, participate in artistic programming or use any of the facilities. Nonetheless, my parents loyally paid the exceptionally high Connecticut state taxes for years while simultaneously paying for my textbooks and these occasional tutors. They would have saved thousands of dollars had the state allowed them to direct some of their tax money, which paid for the public school system, toward their choice of schools. I wish the state had given them the choice.

The way the system works now, the government spends a given amount of money on each child for education, and if the parents are not satisfied with the public school in their district, that’s their problem. They must either live with the public school system or shell out the cash for a private school or homeschooling. Proponents of school choice propose a third option: the voucher system. If the state gives parents a voucher for the amount of money allotted to the child, the parent can then choose where to put that money, putting it toward the full cost of public school, a private parochial school or the partial cost of a private school. The fact is that some schools should close. “No Child Left Behind” is in the business of shutting down schools, but it does not always close the right ones because it judges educational success merely by students’ yearly improvement on standardized test scores. Give parents vouchers, and they will be able to choose a public or charter school outside their district that provides a better quality of education. Empty schools would close or be forced to improve. If parents, as opposed to test scores, have the power to decide which schools are funded, the best schools really will stay open.

Research seems to indicate success in school districts where voucher programs have been tested. An evaluation sponsored by the Taubman Center on State and Local Government and the Kennedy School of Government highlighted substantial leaps in the test scores of children moved out of public and into private school in their first two years alone. Many policy makers express hesitation over the cost increases of voucher implementation; however, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the national average spent per student is $8,701 with states like New Jersey and New York spending as much as $13,800 and $14,119 respectively. In comparison, tuition at private suburban denominational schools ranges from $5,000 to $14,000. Private school tuition is higher but more affordable for some families with the supplementation of state funds. Depending on the specific district, implementing voucher programs could not only be reasonable but may even be cost efficient.

Opponents say that the free market is too dangerous to be allowed to govern education. But what choice do we have? We have let government take ever more control over education, and we have seen a downward spiral in the quality and effectiveness of education. Liberals and Conservatives have each had their chance in office to fix the education crisis; now it should be the parents’ turn.

While I agree with Senator Barack Obama on many issues, I think his conception of the “government fix” misses the mark. He promises a more concerned, capable government, while a more jaded Senator John McCain proposes giving more power to parents so that, when the government inevitably fails, education will not.

As a homeschooler, this idea of vouchers and school choice is important to me, but it should be important to everyone. There was a time in history when parents were the primary educators of their children, when the government did not demand the right to decide how, when, where and what to teach children. Since education was handed over to the state, American children have been steadily falling behind in global ratings and test scores. Perhaps the free market is a dangerous force to let loose on our children, but clearly the alternative has only produced a failing public school system. Let’s assume that the government will not always have the interests of our children in mind and see if the self-interested capitalist system can mend our schools instead.